Dr. AIX's POSTS — 24 September 2015

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Robert Margouleff and I spent another couple of hours in the studio the other day listening to a variety of pop/rock commercial surround music tracks. I have a bunch of demonstration discs containing a variety of music genres mixed in 5.1 surround sound. After the disappointing “surround” extractions we auditioned over the weekend, we’re continuing the search for tunes that will make compelling headphone surround demos.

So what criteria are we using when we listen to a selection from Foreigner, Neil Young, The Doors, or ELP? Mixing in 5.1 surround hasn’t been around long enough for audio engineers to narrow in on a “standard way” of placing instruments and vocals. The increased number of speakers offers creative possibilities that simply don’t exist in 2-channel stereo mixes.

I think Robert would agree we’re listening for an aggressive use of the space. Simply pulling a stereo mix off of the front wall by fading a copy of the left and right front channels to the left and right surrounds isn’t compelling. And unfortunately, there are a lot of releases that claim to have 5.1 surround mixes when in reality they’re nothing more than stereo mixes distributed in a 5.1 surround speaker array. I think some of the engineers/producers of these projects believe a successful 5.1 surround mix is one that has full levels in all of the meters.

When I mix a track in surround, I want individual instruments spread around the room. I always mix my projects in 5.1 before tackling the stereo version but I don’t think most projects are mixed in that sequence. The market for surround music is so small compared to outlets for traditional stereo mixes that more time and effort is spent on the stereo versions. When those mixes are done, it’s (and less expensive) far simpler to recast the 2-channel mixes in a 5.1 spear array than it is to re-imagine the music natively in surround.

Virtually all of the commercial pop/rock tracks that we heard on Tuesday are traditional front oriented mixes with some instrumentation steered to the left and right surround speakers. There are some more aggressive and creative mixes but they are rare.

The other thing that we noticed was the lack of warmth in many of the tracks. The follow the “all loud all the time” production norm and the overuse of mastering tools that sneak in frequency specific amplitude increases doesn’t contribute to enhanced fidelity…they just make things louder.

So our quest resulted in identifying about 4-6 tracks that need remastering to make them ready for casting as headphone surround demos. What I would really like to do is get my hands on the original multitracks and remix The Door, ELP, or The Beatles in discrete 5.1 surround. The results would be very different than what’s been released on SACD, DVD-Audio, or Pure Audio Blu-ray.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(18) Readers Comments

  1. Good Day, Mark!
    It really doesn’t make any sense that the music industry has been so slow or reluctant to embrace surround sound. I was hooked for life in 1976 when I saw Pink Floyd at Tampa Stadium (In the Flesh tour). They used one of the many iterations of quadrophonic sound and I remember being in awe. Of course the awe turned to dismay when I bought a quad receiver and found out that they weren’t very uniform in the consumer playback materials. Maybe the LFE settings from movies to music are what’s putting people off? I’m at a loss as why people don’t demand an immersive musical experience.

    • Yea, Bruce, I too was amazed when I saw the Floyd at the Montreal Olympic stadium on that tour(I called it the ‘Animals” tour). The sound was incredible & most noticeable when it was first turned on – the ears adjusted somewhat as the night wore on & the crowd got more boisterous culminating in fireworks being let off by some in front of the stage & Waters pleading for quiet while some of the gentler songs were being played.

      The band were not very happy with things that night & although I didn’t notice it at the time Waters invited one of the audience (‘little piggy’ as he called him) up on stage where Waters spat in his face. The seed for ‘The Wall’, it seems.

      I didn’t follow up surround sound but did hear quad playback some time later & wasn’t too impressed

  2. If you haven’t heard the 4.1 version of Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon you might want to search it out. Supposed to be based on the original quad master tapes that were never released and I really liked it when I heard it after I found it.
    It obviously is not Hi res but I love the mix and the way it sounds, tape noise, flaws, and all. I doubt it is technically a studio supported copy but it would make a cool headphone or otherwise release even if you just picked your favorite track or the one with best suround affect.
    I’m very familiar with the stereo version and this one has some different but the same things going on.
    Any of the artists you list have some worthy tracks though and it will be cool to see what you come up with.

    • I have heard both the Alan Parsons Quad mix AND the James Guthrie 5.1 mix (I prefer the Parson’s quad version).

      • Finally made it back and see you commented and I have to agree the Parsons mix is awesome. I think I may have heard the other mix but I was floored when I heard the Parsons mix and I had to burn it to disk and play on my Denon multi audio format 757 DVD player.
        Really glad it made it out in the wild for another take on a old friend of a album.

  3. Hi Mark,
    one release that comes to my mind when talking about agressive surround mixes is Jean Michel Jarre’s 2004 “Aero”. Unfortunately, this was only released as CD+DVD set with lossy surround tracks (DTS and AC3).
    But I think it’s still worth cheking out.
    Best regards,
    Oliver

    • I have heard about this project but not the actual mix. It’s probably too obscure for our purposes.

  4. Surely the Dark Side of the Moon 4.0 mix is a surround-sound classic & what you’re looking for as a ready-made “reference” ?

    Also, I believe that the album “The Altogether” by Orbital was written for 5.1, and as it’s Electronica it might be something different to use in demonstrations.

  5. Are there any DVD-audio or sacd discs that you would recommend, possibly some that were done by Eliot Scheiner or Steven Wilson?

    • The Steely Dan mixes are excellent and the Jethro Tull and Yes 5.1 mixes by Steven Wilson are great too.

  6. Hello Mark –

    Coming up to TAVES (Toronto) this year? If so, bring some books – I want one!
    Thanks & hopefully see you there,

    Mark

  7. Sad to see you still trying to pull the owl on the globe with your audio conclusions. The truth is completely different, alas.

    • Thanks for your contribution Jay.

  8. Count me out for surround music. I tried it with various DVD-A’s, SACD and DTS-encoded compact discs. They either fell into 2 categories: either very subtle where the surround effects were barely noticeable or aggressively over the top. I, as a listener, don’t want to be sitting in the middle of the band or get motion sickness with everything swirling around me. Surround sound done right? Headhunters by Herbie Hancock, Ship Ahoy by the O’Jays, Avalon by Roxy Music and Morph The Cat by Donald Fagen. All either on SACD or DVD-A and out of print.

  9. Hi Mark

    I have a very large selection of DVD audio and sacd disks from the early 2000’s onward. (Well over 250)

    Considering for now only the DVD Audio disks, I would have thought that Foreigner 4 – Urgent , The Doors – Hello I love you, Dooby Brothers – Long Train Running, Metallica – Enter Sandman are just a few amazing 5.1 mixes. I listen to these and so many others that are just brilliant 5.1 surround mixes.
    Of course there are some bad ones typically Neil Young – Old Man and innumerable other tracks, but to listen to Foreigner in full surround mix with Urgent, is an adrenaline rush.

    So I was interested that you considered the tracks you mentioned including Foreigner were front oriented mixes (In fact that Neil Young – Old Man has the rhythm section all in the left Rear! awful). Foreigner – Juke Box Hero is a great demo of surround when the bass travels around your head and then the guitars crash from the two front speakers, and the Vocal is right there in the front Centre Row

    And finally Dire Straits – Money For Nothing and Queen – Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Another One Bites The Dust. Just astounding surround.

    The aggressive surround mixes from your studio are all excellent, and I only listen to the Stage Mixes since those are the immersive surround experiences. That’s what I really have enjoyed and have always therefore recognised your ability to record and demonstrate the wonderful musicality of Surround Mixes.

    Maybe I’m wrong and its always impossible to recreate exactly the same sound elsewhere, and I have never listened on headphones to surround sound, but for just this once I seem to disagree with your analysis of some of those DVD Audio mixes of the pop albums!

    Regards

    Howard

    • Thanks. The Foreigner “Feels Like the First Time” was not compelling. I love the Queen 5.1 mixes and many others…although my collection is limited.

  10. I agree with the DSOTM various mixes in their “immersion” disc set. I’ve had so many copies of the standard & “remastered for digital” iterations. I recently bought a new box set of discs at a 35% discount @ $100 for unreleased . It’s pretty damn good. Parson’s recollection of all of those tiny elements & what mix happened where through the entire album after all these years is mind numbing. The doc is also on YouTube and reveals new technology in the making. What they all did was amazing, revolutionary for its Time (pun intended). It couldn’t have happened without any one of them.

    Mark, the tour I saw was technically supported the “Animals” LP , complete with giant floating pigs. The “In the Flesh” also played “Wish You Were Here” in its entirety. I was floored by the heady $13!

    • Thanks Bruce.

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